An Australian Holocaust: greenhouse gas emissions and mass deaths

Aug 31, 2023
Coal handling in a port.

Australian governments and mining firms are cold-bloodedly contemplating the needless deaths of 5.3 million human beings – many of them our own citizens – from climate causes resulting from new Australian fossil fuels developments.

The death toll from climate impacts was highlighted in a recent paper by Canadian researchers Joshua Pearce and Richard Parncut who argued that a billion people will die worldwide if global warming is allowed to reach +2oC, from its current +1.2o.

Fatalities are the most important measure of the damage inflicted by climate change, the researchers argued – but one that is rarely used. Heat deaths are one of the many ways the warming climate kills – claiming 61,000 European lives last year alone – others include starvation from crop failure, thirst from water scarcity, drowning in floods and rising sea levels, wildfires, violent storms, power outages, resource wars and in perilous attempts to flee across borders and oceans.

A scientific metric increasingly widely used to estimate the human damage is the “thousand tonne rule”, which basically argues that for every thousand tonnes of fossil fuels mined, one person dies. Using this, Pearce and Parncut argue “If warming reaches or exceeds 2 °C this century, mainly richer humans will be responsible for killing roughly 1 billion mainly poorer humans through anthropogenic global warming, which is comparable with involuntary or negligent manslaughter.”

Applying the same measure to Australian coal and gas production, most of which is burnt overseas, around 540,000 human beings are presently dying worldwide every year, in order to maintain the Australian living standard. However, there is far worse in store.

As the Australia Institute has pointed out, Australian governments have lately approved three new coal projects – and have 28 more in the pipeline for approval. Those new mines are projected to yield a total of 5,278 million tonnes of coal (equal to 12 billion tonnes of climate emissions) – which, using the Pearce/Parncut calculus, will claim no fewer than 5.3 million human lives.

Every politician and every mining executive in Australia – unless they are exceptionally stupid or brutish – knows there is a growing death toll from our heating climate, and that climate is driven by rising man-made emissions, mainly from fossil fuels and land clearing.

Yet they choose to ignore it. To look elsewhere. To lie to themselves, to their electors or shareholders and the world in general in arguably the most shameful act of lethal deception ever.

From now on, for every thousand tonnes of new coal or gas we unearth, a child dies in agony, somewhere far away, out of sight of a media that does not care much anyway. Albo knows it. Dutton knows it. The Minerals Council of Australia know it. Palaszczuk and Minns know it – though maybe not the actual numbers. But they are united in not wanting Australians to know it. To not know that our precious way of life rests on a sea of innocent blood.

The deception is nowhere more plain than in the fact that our ‘climate policy’ focuses exclusively on the 533 million tonnes of domestic climate emissions Australia produces internally each year – and purposefully ignores the far larger 1.4 billion tonnes of emissions from our fossil fuels exports. It is a deliberate ploy to make it appear that Australia’s contribution to global heating and lives lost is barely a quarter of what it in fact is.

Recognising that the shedding of blood – our own as well as that of people in other lands – is an immense ethical decision, Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) has argued strenuously and with great justice and principle that the decision to go to war should rest with the whole Parliament, not with one man or a small group.

Every new fossil carbon mine approved represents a decision by Australia to shed innocent blood on a warlike scale. Signing off the 116 new coalmines and gas fields now in the Australian pipeline would constitute a decision to war on humanity on a scale comparable to that taken by Germany and Japan nearly a century ago. It would contribute a significant share of the billion deaths projected by Pearce and Parncut.

Because the weapon is fossil energy instead of military might does not make it any more ethical. Because those deaths are for profit, or political expedience, does not make them any more justifiable. Australian politicians and miners have chosen to blind themselves to the facts rather than risk their self-interest. Their denial makes this not ‘involuntary manslaughter’ but cold-hearted, deliberate killing for monetary advantage.

War criminals are now routinely put on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But war crimes are small in scale compared with climate crimes, which affect the whole planet and all of humanity. It a high time that climate crimes were accorded an equivalent world legal standing, and those most responsible put on trial. There is talk of making ‘ecocide’, the deliberate destruction of the life-sustaining environment, a crime in some countries, and maybe in the ICC too.

Australia, long ago and far away, was a young country that believed in the principles of equality, ethical and fair dealing towards all fellow humans. We were a prime mover in establishing the United Nations to end wars and the International Declaration of Human Rights. Those ideals have been abandoned by the present generation of our political and corporate rulers in their lust for power and money.

It is high time Australians stood again, shoulder to shoulder, to demand the restoration of our traditional values and ideals. To demand our leaders end the useless killing. To redeem our soiled honour by proposing the international prosecution of climate and environmental criminals responsible for wrecking the world our children will inherit.

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